Monday, June 18, 2018

Rediscovering the "Fast Bike"

Have I mentioned that I have two kids now, and that having two kids means I don't get to ride as much?  Oh, yeah, I guess I did.

Being a dad is pretty great.  Not getting to ride as much sucks.  For a long while, the best I could muster was a quick zip to our local, urban singletrack on my Stragggler.  I could get there, do a lap and a half, and get home in a little over an hour, which meant I could do it all while the kid napped.  Now we have two kids, and I'm bored with the local, urban singletrack, and honestly, the novelty of drop bars on singletrack has worn off.  So on Fathers' Day, when my wife asked what I wanted to do, I told her the truth: I wanted to get out for a good long road ride.  Like, on pavement, on a bike with skinny tires.  Don't tell The Radavist.

Many years ago, before the birth of ABW, I worked at a wonderful, if sometimes dysfunctional, shop in Oregon.  Among their brands was Cannondale, and our Cannondale rep was the best rep I'd ever worked with.  He'd been a wrench for a long time prior to being a rep, had worked for Shimano before Cannondale, knew his shit, and treated our shop really, really well.  It's his fault I'm a Cannondale fan boy to this day.

So he came in to the shop one day and told us that the warehouse guys at Cannondale had found some component odds and ends and did what they needed to do to make complete bikes out of them.  So they slapped Campy Record 10, and Ksyrium SLs onto CAAD8 frames and sold them to us for something insane like 1800 bucks.  That was more money than I'd ever dreamed of spending on a bike, but the shop guys correctly told me I'd be a fucking idiot not to buy one, so I did.  I rode it stock for a couple months, then sold the Ksyriums and bought some Record/Ambrosio wheels and put those on.  Then I rode the shit out of it for 10 years and the only thing I did to it was lube the chain and turn the barrel adjusters on the brakes.  It still has the original chain and brake pads, and neither is showing many signs they need to be replaced.  It's the smoothest bike I've ever owned.  I love it, even though I have had whole calendar years in which I've only ridden it 50 miles.  I just kind of forgot about it for a while.

Also for Fathers' Day (last year, and the year before, and the year before), The Wife gave me a free pass to go on a mountain bike trip to the location of my choosing, with whomever I chose, for at least a few days.  I finally took her up on it and rounded up a good group of fellow dads and the trip is coming up in a week.  I don't want to be the slowest guy on the team, so in addition to wanting to get reacquainted with my road bike, I needed to get some miles in. 

So Fathers' Day dawned kind of overcast, hot, humid, with the forecast calling for it to get a lot hotter.  Uncharacteristically for me, I headed out without much of a route in mind.  Getting lost isn't such a big deal out here, where the roads are pretty much a N/S/E/W grid.  I set out on a familiar road headed west, and kept heading west beyond where I usually turn south.  In the distance, I could see a long, gradual, straight climb right up to the horizon, so I decided I'd do that, and head south as soon as possible after the climb. 

Well, the first road south after the climb was gravel.  No biggie, but I will say this about the Stragggler - 41s at 45psi work better on gravel than 25s at 90.  I rode gingerly and slowly to avoid pinch flats and eventually made it back to pavement, headed south. 

I took the next paved left I could, headed back east at this point, heading home.  Before long, I had to decide - keep heading east on gravel, or turn north and head back to the path I'd taken out of town.  I didn't want to ride the same roads, so I decided to keep heading east on the gravel.  That was a bit of a mistake, as it turned to fresh, loose gravel within a mile.  25s at 90psi on loose gravel suuuuuuuck.  But it did wonders to refresh my bike handling skills. 

Anyway, I made it home without any flats, totally gassed after only 31.8 miles.  I'm no longer fit enough for the fit of the Fast Bike.  It's got a 120mm stem on it and about 8cm of drop from saddle to bars.  I think if I swap to a 110 and gain a few millimeters in height, I'll be OK again.  But damn, it still feels fast, even if I don't. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Forget About Frame Material

I can't believe that A) I haven't covered this already and B) it still needs to be said in this day and age, but when you're considering a bike, don't make the frame material your highest consideration.  Just don't worry about it.  Worry about a few other things that will have greater impact on how much you'll enjoy your bike ride, and the frame will take care of itself.

Back in the day (90s-ish is when it ramped up it seems), four frame materials were the most common in the industry, and each had a firmly defined list of pros and cons:

Steel Pros: Lively ride, durable, relatively inexpensive
Steel Cons: Heavy, flexy, rusts
Aluminum Pros: Light, stiff, doesn't rust, relatively inexpensive
Al Cons: Harsh ride, prone to cracking
Carbon Pros: Light, absorbs road vibration
Carbon Cons: Expensive, can feel "dead," prone to catastrophic failure
Titanium Pros: Light, lively (magic ride quality), durable, "forever frame" material
Ti Cons: Expensive, expensive, expensive

And back in the day, most of this was true.  Big brands like Trek were still putting out high-quality steel frames that rode really well, aluminum frames really were stiff, especially in light of the primitive and uncommon suspension of the time, carbon was the new (to the mainstream) wonder material.  Ti was always there, and it's always been seen as prohibitively expensive.

Fast forward a few decades, and advances in manufacturing and economies of scale, and with the exception of the cheapest frames, all of this is now utter and complete bullshit.  The fact is, in the hands of a good brand or builder, any frame material can be made to perform any way the designer wants (and yes, how a frame "feels" is performance).  A steel frame (Speedvagen) is the stiffest frame ever tested by VeloNews.  The CAAD bikes from Cannondale and the Smartweld Allezs from Specialized are marvels of metal manipulation and ride insanely well, with no "harshness" to speak of.  Carbon has gotten dramatically cheaper, and because it's been the trendy material for decades, there are a ton of garbage carbon frames out there that ride like shit.  And ti is still there, and it's still expensive.

As is my common refrain, so the fuck what?  Here's the problem with focusing on frame material: again, with the exception of really cheap (cheaply made and cheap to buy) frames, the frame material has less to do with the enjoyment of the ride than all these other factors (listed roughly in order of importance/impact):

  • Your shorts and the quality of the chamois therein
  • The fit of your bike
  • Your gloves and bar tape
  • The size of your tires and tire pressure thereof
  • The quality of the drivetrain of the bike
  • The quality of the wheels on your bike
As I explained elsewhere, a bike is a study in economics, and buying a bike with a more expensive carbon frame means you have less money for the above variables.  That's not to say there aren't wonderful, inexpensive carbon bikes out there these days.  There are, and more every season.  It's just that when you walk into a shop, or hop on the interwebs, and say, "I want a carbon bike," it frames the issue in a way that makes it harder and more expensive to achieve the ultimate goal of getting a bike that you'll enjoy riding.  

So bottom line, test ride a shit ton of bikes, and take them out for a real ride, where you go over a variety of surfaces, have to fight the wind and a couple hills, and need to shift a bunch.  Then buy the nicest one you can afford.  Then ride the shit out of it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Bike Shops Can Still Piss Me Off

My daughter goes to physical therapy every other week to help with her walking.  Grand scale, it's not a big deal.  I only bring it up to explain how I came to be fixing this beast:

It's a Kettler trike with hand cycle.  When we started PT months ago, it was already "broken." The hand cycle would turn, but for unknown reasons, wasn't turning the wheel.  I didn't find out about the issue until a few weeks ago, when my daughter climbed on and tried to escape (be still my heart).  She could turn the hand crank, but nothing was happening.  I asked the physical therapist what was going on.  She told me it was broken and that she'd taken it to every shop in town (we have five), but every one told her they couldn't fix it.  One gave a lame excuse that "they couldn't get parts for it."  That shop had not actually done any disassembly or diagnosing.  I haven't spoken to any of the shops, but having worked in "normal" shops for a loooong time, I'm pretty sure I know what happened.  They saw a non-standard machine, knew it could be an ugly can of worms, decided they were unlikely to make any money on it and/or just didn't want to deal with the hassle, and bailed.  "Can't fix it, can't get parts for it, sorry for your bad luck."

I get it.  I understand the harsh economics of brick and mortar retail in general, and bike shops in particular.  If you can't make money, you can't stay in business, and many are not doing either.


So I told the PT that I'd been a mechanic for a long time and I'd be happy to take a look at it.  As I've often mentioned, I'm losing the grease under my fingernails and that makes me sad.  It seemed like a good project to exercise my mechanical brain a little, so I brought it home, and started digging in.

Giving the shops the benefit of the doubt, the first real obstacle I encountered was a non-threaded crank arm.  You see that, you wonder how it's gonna come off.  Prior to Campy Powertorque, it would've been even more confusing, because virtually all crankarms were threaded.  However, any mechanic worth his salt, especially one who's dealt with Campy, should know that pullers exist for all kinds of things without threads.  Luckily, my dad was a Snap-on dealer forever, and I knew he'd have something in the garage.  He did:

After getting the crank off, removing the chain guard was easy, and then it was even easier to see what the issue was.  The chain was loose, and because it hangs vertically, it wasn't engaging the teeth on the bottom sprocket.  The only tensioner is the upper jockey wheel, and it's only got about 1/2" of diagonal movement, which really doesn't amount to a lot of tension adjustment.

I guessed, probably correctly, that removing a whole link would be too much - even with the tensioning pulley backed off as much as possible, the chain would be too tight.  What to do, what to do...?

Luckily, I've been a misguided singlespeeder for a while now, and in the interest of getting my Leftiachi all tukt and shit, I usually have a half link lurking in a bin somewhere.  Bingo.  Full link out, half link in, master link back in, and the chain is tensioned perfectly:

So why does this make me angry at bike shops?  Let me enumerate the ways:

  1. All told, the fix took me probably 20 minutes.  It was really, really easy
  2. It seems the shops didn't even bother to try to figure it out.  If they had, they should've realized what an easy fix this would be.
  3. And that means they missed an opportunity.  At my old shop, the rate was $60/hour, and that was 10 years ago.  A shop that could've fixed this in the same amount of time as a washed-up old mechanic could've easily made money on this.  The PT office would've been paying, and while I'm not suggesting any shop pad their hours, you could've charged them 60 bucks and they wouldn't have batted an eye.
  4. They also missed the chance to become the shop for the PT's office.  That place has a whole room full of bikes.  They're all "weird," but they're all simple.  You get a PT's office bringing you bikes, and you've got a cash cow, not to mention the chance to work on something out of the ordinary every once in a while.  Maybe you don't want to take this on in June, when every fred wants his bike yesterday, but what else are you doing this time of year?  Let your mechanics dig into shit like this.  You're not gonna lose any more money that you would be otherwise and they get to stretch their brains.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On Suspension

The bike blog world is all atwitter recently with discussion of suspension vs. rigid bikes.  Before we go any further at all, can we all just take a moment to appreciate what it says about the bike industry that this is still a discussion that people care to have.  I mean, bloody hell, the RockShox RS-1 is pretty well agreed upon as being the first "real" suspension fork (yes, there were others before; no, nobody bought or rode them in meaningful numbers).  It came out in '91 or '92.

We've been wasting each other's time with this asinine bullshit for a quarter fucking century.  Anyway, Bike Snob got the discussion started with his article, then PinkBike had to stick their nose into it, and since Prolly can't be left out of any asinine, bike-related discussion, he recently posted his $0.02.  Again, before we go any further, let me reiterate what all these fine writers have already said about each other: these are well-written, often funny, thoughtful pieces and all are worth your time if you haven't read them already.  I really do respect these guys, but I think they all missed something.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let's move on to establishing my credibility:  this is the internet and I have a blog, so I'm an expert.  Ha!  That's a joke!  Except it's not really funny.  I started riding a real mountain bike in '97 or '98.  I started rigid, then bought a bike with a suspension fork, then eventually rode a lot of full sus bikes.  Along the way, I've ridden a shit ton of trials on a variety of rigid bikes, road bikes, a little time on a cyclocross bike but never actually riding cross, and I now spend most of my time riding either a Surly Straggler with the stock 41c Knards or my El Mariachi 29er with a Lefty fork on it.  I ride the Straggler as intended - lots of gravel and pavement with a healthy amount of midwest singletrack as well.  I ride the El Mar on what passes for mountain bike trails in southern MN.  My point is, I've ridden all sorts of bikes on all sorts of terrain for quite a while.

The problem with this discussion, and the big something that all the other bloggers missed, is that it's bickering about opinions.  We may as well sit around and yell at each other about which is the best color (btw, it's OD green).  When this little essay is complete, the bottom line will be: ride what you like for the terrain you ride most often.

That said, let's see if we can actually weed out some factual kernels from all the bullshit chaff:

All else being equal (same components, same rider, same trail, etc), the following are all true:

  1. A rigid bike will be lighter.
  2. A rigid bike will require less maintenance OR,
  3. A rigid bike will be quieter.
  4. Over the same rough terrain, a sus bike will be faster.
  5. Rigid bikes will make you a better bike handler.
  6. Rigid bikes are cheaper.
I can already hear you armchair pundits out there sputter, "BUBUBUBUT WAIT!  I have all these friends on full sus bikes and I ride rigid and I kick their asses!"  Reread the caveat above.  If all else is equal, the statements above are fact.  Let's talk about them.

1.  Even the simplest suspension requires stronger, more intricate frame components than a rigid bike.  Even a soft tail without any pivots requires a spring of some kind, most likely a shock with an actual damper, and either special materials or processes to join the parts.  A rigid bike is just tubing, most likely welded together.  There is literally nothing you can do to make that lighter.  Jeebus knows bike companies keep trying.  Fact: all else being equal, a rigid bike is lighter.

2.  Less maintenance/noise.  Most suspension bikes have at least one, and as many as six pivots (special prize to the reader who can name the current bike with the most pivots).  At each pivot, there will be two bushings or bearings (let's not talk about Yeti's weird slider thingies right now), all of which are press fit into precision-machined areas of the frame or linkage.  While bike companies are pretty good, they aren't aerospace, so tolerances can and do vary, which means lots of microscopic cracks for dirt and moisture to infiltrate.  Squish dirt between two hard pieces of metal, you get a creak.  If you want your full sus bike to be quiet, you'll be pulling and replacing bearings at least annually.  Realistically, you'll learn to live with creaks, because replacing bearings is time consuming and if you don't know what you're doing, you risk damaging your frame.  So, your full sus bike is going to creak.  Forks don't make as much noise, but seeing as how a rigid fork requires zero maintenance, it's still a fact that a sus fork will take more.  

4.  Sus bikes are faster.  I'm sure this is the one that caused all you mustachioed, flat-brimmed, dude bros to spit take your DIPAs and espressos.  While no longer as common a misconception, there are still too many people who think suspension is for comfort.  It's not and never has been, except for the suspension seatpost on your mom's Trek 7100.  Suspension is there to maintain traction, i.e. it exists to keep your tires in contact with the ground as much as possible.  Since the only force propelling you forward on flat ground or while going up hills is the rear wheel, the more that rear wheel maintains traction, the faster you'll be.  Going downhill, more traction gives you greater control, which makes you faster.  Finally, suspension is forgiving, which leads into...

5.  Rigid makes you a better bike handler.  Compared to your arms, legs, back, and neck, your rigid bike is relatively immovable.  You hit a six-inch rock, your handlebars move six inches.  You absorb that with your body.  Repeat that hundreds or thousands of times over the course of a ride, and it wears you the fuck out.  Most people don't like to be beaten like that, so if you ride rigid, you learn to pick your way around rocks.  Do that enough, and without any thought at all, you'll find yourself picking the smoothest lines.  Know what picking smooth lines is called?  Good bike handling.  If you're lucky enough to own both rigid and full sus, do yourself a favor and ride your favorite trail a half dozen times on your rigid bike and then switch to sus.  You'll feel like goddamned Superman.  And in support of my statement that full sus is forgiving, you'll find yourself going too fast at times, and you'll miss the line you know to be smoothest, and it won't matter when you hit that baby head because the suspension just takes care of it for you.

6.  Rigid is cheaper.  This one is pretty simple.  A rigid frame and fork are pretty simple.  Simple is cheap.  Again, all things being equal, no matter how simple the suspension, it will be more expensive than a pile of tubes that are welded together.

So that's it.  Everything else is opinion, although I will say I welcome well-reasoned arguments from anybody.  Does anybody still read this piece of shit?  That's what I thought and I don't hardly blame you.  So, you do you, and if you're lucky enough that you can afford more than one bike, make one rigid.  It'll make you a better rider.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I'm Losing It

On September 24th, my daughter will turn 2.  That will also mark my two-year anniversary of exiting the bike industry.  I have nothing but gratitude that I get to be a stay-at-home dad.  It's a privilege, and I try very hard not to take it for granted.  And while it took longer than expected to get used to my change in identity, I'm now more confident, comfortable, and proud telling people I'm a SAHD.  I have a wonderful life.

Still, a lot happens in two years in a tech-driven industry.

The last time I interviewed for a job in the bike industry, it was to be a part-time wrench at a shop in Boston five or so years ago.  When I spoke to the service manager, I told him the following skills by way of establishing my expertise: I could build wheels, rebuild an Ergolever, overhaul Campy, Shimano, Zipp, and Mavic hubs (among a few less notable others), face and chase the important surfaces on a frame, and glue tubulars.  At the time, it was a modestly impressive if impromptu resume; some of those skills are still important.

But you pro wrenches out there will note so many glaringly outdated skills.  Most shops can't make money building wheels, and distributors do a damn good job building inexpensive wheels, so who gives a shit if I can build a wheel?  Nobody rides Campy long enough to wear out an Ergolever anymore.  Everything is press fit and carbon these days, so prepping a frame to build is no longer needed.  My experience with electronic shifting was a test ride in a parking lot.  Boost didn't yet exist.

These days, I might just as well walk into an autobody place and tell the guy I can tune a carb.

At this point, I'm in danger of getting so far behind that to catch back up will never be worth it.  I dream of getting back to wrenching part time, but Baby Two is due in November, which means that's unlikely to happen for at least a couple more years.  If I haven't kept up some technical expertise in that time, I won't be worth much to a good shop, even if they're just paying me minimum wage.  This makes me really, really sad.  Who is Angry Bike Wrench if he doesn't now how to wrench?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Dad Biking

The Baby was born about 11 months ago.  Before Baby (BB), I was fit, moderately successful and connected in the bike industry, and rode my bike pretty much daily, even if a ride was to grab eggs at the grocery store down the street.  After Baby (AB), I'm lucky to ride my bike weekly, and the ride is still often to grab eggs.  I've gained eight pounds.  Hills that I used to breeze I now struggle up.  Technical sections I used to clean I often dab.  I love my daughter and my life, but fuck...

I went for a ride the other day, a real ride, on my Surly Stragggler, on real trails with rocks and turns.  The trail in question is an odd one.  It's singletrack and the loop is around six miles long, but it's crammed into an area about the size of a couple football fields.  It's nothing but turns, and you're often only a few feet away from the trail as the crow flies, even if that section is a mile or two away by trail.  The hills are super short and often brutally steep.  In short, it's the opposite of a flow trail.  But, I can ride to it in less than 10 minutes and do a lap and still get home in about an hour.  It's fun, especially if you only get to ride it once a month.

So I do this ride, and it hurts.  I'm so out of shape.  But I still manage to make it up all the hills I used to ride up, albeit a hell of a lot slower, and it feels fantastic.  On the ride home, I think a lot about why this ride seemed to mean so much more than it should've.  I think it's because when The Baby was born, my identity fundamentally changed overnight.  I went from being a semi-successful and respected member of the bike industry to being a stay-at-home-dad who didn't know shit about shit.  The ride connected me back to the old me, convinced me he was still in there somewhere.  I don't want to lose the old me, even if the new me is also pretty rad.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Intro to The Fugly Stump Project

Oh, hey.  Yeah, I'm still alive, just spending more time changing diapers than brake pads these days.  As far as my "official bike industry status," I'm out.  Right now, for the first time since I was 16, I am in no way officially or professionally associated with the Bike Industry.  It's weird.

But you don't really give a shit about that, you want to hear about the FUGLY STUMPJUMPER.  Back story: an old colleague, let's call him Bob, is a vintage MTB guy with lots of connections, and he loves to wheel and deal.  I've long been pondering a vintage MTB project along the lines of a big BMX restomod - take an old Zaskar, Stumpjumper, Homegrown, etc. frame and put some cruiser bars on it, one fucking speed, and some big ol' fatty slicks and use it to bounce off the curbs on the way to and from the bar.  He knew about this daydream of mine and found himself in a situation wherein, in order to buy the really nice Stump he wanted, he also needed to buy a really ugly Stump frameset that nobody in their right mind would want.  But he knew about my daydream...

Fast forward a while, and he shows me this thing:

Somewhere under that marbletastic truck bed liner is an early 80s Stumpjumper.  I'd like to learn how to nail the year down, so you if you know your early Stumps, or know somebody who does, let me know in the comments.

I'm nearly finished with phase one of the project - I just want to swap the tires out for something even fatter, and it'll be finished for now.  Future phases will include all of the following:
  • Doing something with the finish.  A relief carving of the name on the down tube?  Maybe.  Just strip the lugs so they can shine through?  Maybe.  Despite its ugliness, somebody put a shit ton of time into this finish, and I want to respect that while making it my own.  Plus, it looks awesome.  In its own fugly way.
  • Gears?
  • Drop bars?  The geo on this thing would make for a pretty fine off-road touring rig.
Anyway, more pics to follow.  Now go ride your bike.